New Year resolution: get rid of our squashy middle

To decide our future, we need to learn the lessons of our past. Our current home form and, in particular, the debacle of our defeat to Scunthorpe has all the signs of a not so recent past.

Whenever anyone asks me how we won promotion in 1996, not that anyone has ever done that. Let’s just pretend I’m a mystical soothsayer with a whisty beard that lives on top of a mountain and people come and ask me existential questions about Oxford United.

Right, whenever anyone asks me how we won promotion in 1996, I don’t point to Paul Moody’s goals, or Joey Beauchamp’s creativity or Matt Elliot’s defending. I talk about Stuart Massey.

Early in the 1995/6 season, Oxford United had in their ranks a homegrown talent destined for big things, Chris Allen was a Blackbird Leys boy with breathtaking pace playing down the left flank. He was the epitome of raw talent and, with Joey Beauchamp’s career capitulating at Swindon, was the next great hope to come out of the club. All Allen needed was a Unipart advertising hoarding to aim at; you just had to knock the ball in front of him and he was off. He possessed blistering natural pace, and once he was set free the only thing that would stop him was either a poor sense of direction, he wasn’t one for looking where he was going much, or being clattered to the floor by some galoop of a defender. And that invariably ended with a penalty.

Each season was the same, when pitches were good and the ball to ran true, Allen would skate across the turf scoring goals, winning penalties and occasionally weighing in with a few assists. However, as the season progressed and pitches got stickier, Allen’s influence would whither; where we had a Ferrari on the wing, we really needed a tractor.

The 1995/6 season started with moderate form; we’d capitulated the year before having lead the table at Christmas, and the lull seemed to have continued. Allen had started well though, scoring on the opening day of the season at home to Chesterfield as well as in a creditable 1-1 draw against Premier League QPR in the League Cup. The problem was we couldn’t win away. Allen was a regular in a faltering third tier team; which was no place for a prospect like him. There were inevitable questions about when he would leave and for where. After Joey Beauchamp had left for West Ham (and then Swindon), Allen was his heir apparent for the big time.

In October, Allen played in a chastening 4-1 defeat at home to Wycombe Wanderers. It was a gutless, ponderous performance and a watershed; we wouldn’t again be defeated at the Manor all season. More profoundly for Allen, it would prove to be his last start for the club; Smith didn’t need a summer specialist in a League 1 shit fight.

It wasn’t just Allen’s fluctuating form that concerned Denis Smith; Nottingham Forest were sniffing around the place. Brian Clough had just retired and while Forest were no longer the force they had been, this was still a big club. Allen’s head had been turned by Clough’s successor Frank Clark, allegedly buying him a Mercedes Benz as an incentive to seal a deal. Eventually Allen went out on loan to Forest before securing an ultimately disastrous permanent deal. His exit was a curious situation where a League 1 player who couldn’t getting a game was being moved up to the Premier League.

Replacing Allen, initially, was the more compact Mark Angel who signed from Sunderland and debuted the week after the Wycombe debacle away to Blackpool. But it was Stuart Massey who would emerge as the key to the season’s revival and success. The pivotal moment in that season was an away win over Burnley in January; the team’s first away win. Ironically it was Massey and substitute Allen that scored. Thereafter, Massey was almost ever present while Chris Allen played fitfully from the bench, his last action being in the 1-1 draw with Notts County.

Massey had none of Allen’s pace, he didn’t have Beauchamp’s ability to go past people, he wasn’t big and strong. But Massey could cross and it was his forceful personality that demanded that the ball was played into his feet. Suddenly Oxford stopped lumping the ball up to Paul Moody, or putting pressure on the returning Beauchamp to pull rabbits out of hats, or knocking the ball over the defence into a bog of a pitch for Allen to run onto or expecting midfield duo Dave Smith and Martin Gray to suddenly become creative dynamos in the mould of Jim Magilton. The promotion squad was full of strong characters; Ford, Robinson, Elliot, Whitehead, Gilchrist, Moody; Massey was the kind of player who they listened to, Allen was not.

Watching the debacle against Scunthorpe, the half-way point in the season, it struck me that we have a similar situation. We’re not a bad team and wholesale change isn’t needed, but something isn’t working. Early on, in a false attempt to appear dynamic we were launching balls from the back four straight into Constable and Smalley. While they were fighting valiantly upfront, they were either getting closed down or left chasing lost causes. Meanwhile when the ball came back the other way, Scunthorpe were able to advance unopposed. While Jake Wright had a poor game and his mistake cost us the first goal, with the defence getting so much airtime, it is inevitable that eventually a pass will go astray. With the strikers and defenders doing so much work, it’s also not a surprise that things become ragged as the game progresses and they tire.

So where is the midfield?Asa Hall and Danny Rose spend most of the game watching the ball sailing over their heads. If the ball does come onto their radar, they are rarely on the front foot, ready to do something useful with it. They are not demanding the ball in the way Massey used to. They will take whatever scraps dribble their way. With strong personalities of Wright and Mullins behind them and Constable and Smalley in front, Hall and Rose are left as passive bystanders.

It isn’t really about ability; in the main I don’t have a problem with either of them. If they were needed as substitutes, or to cover the odd game, then I’d have no concerns, but as a regular midfield, they seem incongruous to the rest of the team. We need someone who is going to demand the ball in the way that allows them to be involved in the play. This will prevent the prosaic one-dimensional approach we currently take. At the moment we end up going over the top, or round the outside and down the flanks; the middle of the pitch is surrendered.

Dave Kitson has been giving the midfield some structure, but his pathological ill discipline means we can’t rely on him. Andy Whing, of course, is the man who is supposed to be providing greater balance in the team. But judging by his tweets, he’s targeting a return in mid-February, and that’s still by no means assured. Can we rely on our away form to pick up in the meantime? We’re still in need of a whorey old midfielder, a Paul McClaren type, who is going to impose  a way of playing which uses all 11 players, not 8 or 9. This will take pressure off Rigg and Williams to be creative, or Mullins and Wright to spray Glenn Hoddle 50 yard passes from the back. This is easier said than done, of course, but it could be the key.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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